Orange Is the New Black and the Women’s Prison Genre

Curator's Note

The women’s prison genre has, over its many decades, spawned a substantial body of recurring tropes. These include sadistic and/or corrupt officials, tensions between rival alliances of prisoners, the idealistic warden, the stint in solitary, the black market of the inmate economy, struggles—sometimes life and death—over food and cigarettes. The shower scene is a development of the 1970s, but the catfight is a hardy perennial, as is the tracking shot past a series of cells, each displaying a brief vignette of prison life.

And of course there’s the specter of lesbianism, implied or explicit. Even the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Ladies They Talk About (1933) offers a brief glimpse of a mannish, cigar-smoking inmate; “watch out for her,” one prisoner warns a new arrival, “she likes to wrestle.” In Caged (1950) the high-society criminal, after casting an appraising gaze over the protagonist, pronounces “she’s a cute trick.” Where lesbian panic informs the 50s women’s prison film, later treatments, like Jonathan Demme’s grindhouse classic Caged Heat (1974) or the BBC series Bad Girls (1999-2006) often depict same-sex coupling as a haven from the heartlessness of the prison environment, an element of genre revisionism carried forward by OITNB.

Perhaps no trope is more integral to the genre, though, than the sequence of the protagonist’s initial entry into incarceration, almost inevitably depicted through a series of eyeline match shots in which she scans the faces of the community she will be joining as they scrutinize her in turn. This device engages us sympathetically with the protagonist’s fear and disorientation, and confirms her difference from the hardened types already inside—like Piper in OITNB, the women’s prison protagonist is typically a (relative) innocent, often above her fellow inmates in class background or education. The implicit question is whether she will preserve her difference, or sink to the level of the common criminals who surround her. This drama drives narratives as different as the earnest social problem film Caged and the sensationalistic TV movie Born Innocent (1974). While Orange initially encourages its presumably middle-class viewer to share Piper’s sense of intimidation and isolation, with Healy as the sympathetic authority figure who reaches out to her, season one ultimately follows Caged Heat in aligning the protagonist with her fellow inmates in their struggle against the inhumane institution they inhabit.


Great post, Vernon. I’m glad you brought up the important role that class plays in the women’s prison genre, in noting that the protagonist is typically wealthier and more educated than her fellow inmates. Where race is pronounced to be the chief determinant of prisoner alliances – where to sit in the cafeteria, e.g. – class is as prominent a divider in positioning Pennsatucky and her “white trash” posse as adversaries to posh Piper, whom they disdainfully call “College.” One of my favorite features of OITNB is its use of flashbacks that establish the unfortunate constellation of factors that led to each woman’s incarceration; in most cases, lack of economic resources (whether for material needs, education, healthcare, legal defense…) were significantly if not wholly to blame. And impoverishment obviously doesn’t end with the prison sentence; Taystee has one of the choicest job assignments (library clerk) at FCI Danbury, but on the outside (as she discovers upon release) her employment prospects and corresponding ability to support and rehabilitate herself are nil – a realization that propels her back to the Big House. Where OITNB is alert to the ways that our penal system is disproportionately punitive to low-income Americans, it has been less cognizant of the ways that financial hardship remains a burden even behind bars. The real-life Piper, Piper Kerman, has become an advocate for prison reform, fighting on behalf of measures such as the recently successful FCC regulation of charges for prison phone calls. Bringing more attention to the economic realities of prison life is one way that OITNB can further distinguish itself from its more exploitative incarnations within the women’s prison genre. Tomorrow’s post, by sociologist Daisy Ball, will delve into these and other ways in which OITNB falls short of doing America’s prisoners justice. Links to Kerman discussing prison reform:

Wonderful clips which definitely get right to the heart of outsider and insider status, or perhaps in this context: Outside on the Inside. If justice (and "justice") is ostensibly built upon the notion of Innocent Until Proven Guilty, there is a power reversal happening in the demonstrated acts of looking that in (media) prison: Even though convicted, the new crop of ladies (and those who would certainly eschew the title) are presumed to be outsiders within the prison code. When Piper says, "I'm scared that I'm not myself in here and I'm scared that I am. Other people aren't the scariest part of prison Dina. It's coming face-to-face with who you really are. because once you're behind these walls there's no where to run, even if you could run. The truth catches up with you in here Dina and it's the truth that's going to make you her bitch" she perhaps reaches the real heart of darkness that the prison-gaze implies: One must first submit and then acculturate in order to survive; and yet, these survival skills bring out the more base--and perhaps more shrewd--instincts that rest underneath the pastiche of normatively. Or, as Guns N' Roses long ago promised: Welcome to the jungle, baby.

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